Scientist Spotlight, 4th Edition, September 2014
From Our Field…
Scientist Spotlight: Melissa D. Blank, PhD
In this installment of the Scientist Spotlight, we provide insight from a successful junior scientist in Academia. Dr. Blank received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2007 under the mentorship of Dr. Thomas Eissenberg. She remained at VCU until 2011 as a Teaching Assistant Professor. In the summer of 2011, she began a post-doctoral fellowship under the direction of Dr. David Drobes at the Moffitt Cancer Center. A year later, Dr. Blank joined the Department of Psychology at West Virginia University as an Assistant Professor. She is currently in her third year of this appointment. Dr. Blank has received several NIH and internal grant awards, including a recently awarded R03 from the National Institute of Drug Abuse. She is also a Co-Leader, along with Dr. Geri Dino, of the Tobacco Research Program of the WV Prevention Research Center. Dr. Blank currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Basic Science Network and as a member of the advisory committee for the Trainee Network.
1. Why did you choose to become a scientist?
After earning my undergraduate degree, I began working as a research assistant at the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University. I found myself excited to go to work every day, and eager to take on as much responsibility as possible. Consequently, I quickly began taking masters-level courses and looking into graduate programs. I was lucky to have stumbled upon a job that led to a career.
2. What are your current research interests?
My current work focuses on an examination of modified risk tobacco products (MRTPs], including oral tobacco (e.g., snus) and electronic cigarettes. Specifically, I’m interested in how characteristics of and beliefs about MRTPs may lead to their use among never and current tobacco users. I’m also interested in how these factors ultimately predict development of nicotine dependence and exposure to toxicants among these groups.
My work also focuses on the phenomenon of polytobacco use, or concurrent use of multiple tobacco products. I study the use of MRTPs and/or traditional tobacco products (e.g., cigars, smokeless tobacco) among cigarette smokers. A currently ongoing study, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, follows dual users of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco prospectively to characterize their behavior patterns and exposure to tobacco toxicants.
3. What do you view as the main challenges for your field? From your perspective, what do you view will be the next biggest breakthrough(s)?
I think the obvious challenge in my research area right now is the debate on whether “safe” tobacco products can exist, and how such a product might be marketed and advertised. MRTPs are designed to reduce a smokers’ exposure to harmful smoke toxicants, thus reducing their risk of disease. Still unknown, however, is the degree to which cigarettes need to be replaced with an MRTP to incur substantial health benefits. Moreover, research must determine that an MRTP will promote cigarette replacement rather than supplementation, and that non-tobacco users will not be attracted to the MRTP. Basically, our field needs to find those MRTPs that simultaneously appeal to smokers and deter non-tobacco users.
4. About how much time per week do you commit to professional organizations, administrative duties or similar?
I commit as little time as possible to administrative duties! I’m not a fan of paperwork or arbitrary rules. For professional organizations, like SRNT, I commit a couple of hours per week to tasks. I have chosen to be on the advisory board for the Trainee Network and also co-chair of the Basic Science Network.
5. Have you achieved a balance between work and personal priorities? How do you prioritize work and non-work activities?
I still strive for an appropriate work/life balance. I’ve made a very conscious decision to have at least one work-free, guilt-free day per week. That is, I focus 100% of my mind on the enjoyment of that day’s non-work related activities. I also engage in this strategy for shorter periods of time on working days (e.g., during a lunch hour or in the evening). If you allow yourself to continue to think about work during “playtime”, then you have not succeeded in maintaining that boundary. Fun should be guilt-free.
6. What strategies have you found to be most beneficial for managing all of your commitments?
I have a few different strategies for dealing with time management challenges. For instance, I make sure to include appropriate breaks throughout the workday. For instance, I often close my office door -- ignoring all knocks at the door, phone calls, and emails – to prop my feet up and listen to relaxation music. Other times I may watch some funny videos on YouTube while eating my lunch, or even engage in some yoga stretches. More recently, I bought a FitDesk for my office to use while I respond to emails or read articles. These strategies help to keep my energy level high and my mind clear for the entire workday.
Another strategy is to pick out a few tasks each week on which I can lower my expectations. The goal is to determine which activities (an extra colloquium, a non-required meeting, that extra hour tweaking lecture slides) might be omitted from my schedule to increase my productivity on more pressing tasks. Importantly, I do believe in being a good citizen within your department, your college, and your university. Still, I don’t think that “good citizenship” and “saying NO!” are mutually exclusive.
7. What is the best advice that you ever received from one of your mentors?
“Ask for forgiveness rather than permission”. To protect all parties involved, I won’t elaborate here!
8. What advice would you have for students starting their academic career? What qualities do you look for when recruiting people to your lab?
I am drawn toward students who have a strong work ethic. Successful academicians need to be self-motivated. We don’t have to punch a clock or report daily to a supervisor. We are only formally evaluated within the department once per year. It’s easy to let the days get away from you over the course of that year, resulting in a sparse record of accomplishments if you aren’t careful!
9. What advice would you have for postdoctoral trainees seeking to transition into a faculty position?
I think that there are two obstacles to overcome as a new faculty member. One obstacle is the aforementioned work/life balance. The time that you dedicate to research will now be regularly interrupted: weekly lecture preparation, countless meetings, mounds of paperwork, random requests for information, etc. It’s best to figure out quickly how you can maintain your research productivity in the face of these demands.
The other obstacle is that you now must take full responsibility for your work. You will no longer have a mentor to oversee the quality and quantity of your work or to question the implications your potentially bad decisions. You must become comfortable with making all final decisions and with dealing with the consequences of those decisions.
10. What career/life choices do you feel have been the most beneficial to result in your success as a younger investigator?
I strongly believe that my early success obtaining grant awards was due to the fact that I stuck with what I knew best. It’s very tempting to branch out into new research areas, in part because you meet so many folks with exciting ideas and in part because there is currently a general push for transdisciplinary research. However, I think that branching out too far too soon will simply delay the progress of your productivity.
Importantly, I am not suggesting that junior investigators avoid collaborations. Rather, I think it’s important to start simple. For instance, I chose to submit grant ideas that followed-up on projects from graduate school and/or my post-doctoral fellowship. For these ideas, I had the expertise and the preliminary data to write a competitive proposal. Consequently, I was awarded two internal grant awards and an NIH R03 award within the first two years of my faculty appointment.
11. What do you foresee as your main career milestones that you hope to achieve over the next 5-10 years?
My primary career goal is to develop a productive program of research. Of course, it will be important for me to continue to obtain the grant awards needed to fund my work. I would also like to expand my research to include examination of genetic influences on nicotine addiction. To date, I have been involved in a few such studies through my graduate and post-doctoral work, and this work is now leading to some publications.